By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about Florence and Tuscany past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Among the classics of Italian literature with particular relevance to Florence are Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and Florentine Histories.
For a historical overview of the whole city, try The City of Florence (R. W. B. Lewis), which has a biographer’s perspective. In Florence: A Portrait, Michael Levey writes with a curator’s expertise. The Stones of Florence bubbles with Mary McCarthy’s wit. Dark Water (Robert Clark) vividly recounts the determination of the Florentines in the face of the city’s destructive floods.
Architecture fans should consider reading the novel-like Brunelleschi’s Dome (Ross King) or The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Peter Murray), which presents a (not too dry) textbook overview. The Lives of the Artists offers anecdote-filled biographies from Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century author/painter/architect who was the contemporary of many of his subjects. For a more academic take on Italian art history, try Italian Renaissance Art (Laurie Schneider Adams).
Christopher Hibbert tells of the intrigues of Florence’s first family in The House of Medici (his Florence is also recommended). Fortune Is a River (Roger D. Masters) describes a scheme between Machiavelli and da Vinci to re-route the Arno (which, thankfully, never happened).
If you’ll be traveling to the area outside of Florence, consider the sensuous travel memoir, The Hills of Tuscany (Ferenc Máté). Also worthwhile is A Tuscan Childhood (Kinta Beevor), about growing up in a sun-drenched villa. Under the Tuscan Sun was a bestseller for Frances Mayes (and is better than the movie of the same name). Another memoir on the adventure of renovating a Tuscan farmhouse is A Small Place in Italy (Eric Newby).
Florence was a favorite destination for European aristocrats and artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Italian influence lives on in classics written during that time, including George Eliot’s Romola and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View.
For a modern read, consider The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland (who also wrote the bestselling Girl in Hyacinth Blue) and The Sixteen Pleasures (Robert Hellenga), set during the great floods that wracked the city in 1966. Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant, is set during Savonarola’s reign, and Galileo’s Daughter (Dava Sobel) is based on the real-life letters between the scientist and his daughter.
Page-turning mysteries set in Florence include A Rich Full Death (Michael Dibdin), Death of an Englishman (Magdalen Nabb), The Dante Game (Jane Langton), and Bella Donna (Barbara Cherne). For a fun Michelangelo potboiler, try The Agony and the Ecstasy (Irving Stone).
The Light in the Piazza (Elizabeth Spencer), the story of a mother and daughter visiting in the 1950s, was a movie (from 1962) and later became an award-winning Broadway musical.
And for the lover of classical tales, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the mid-1300s, is set in plague-ridden medieval Florence.
For a well-done Shakespeare flick that was filmed in Tuscany, try Much Ado About Nothing (1993), which is actually set in Sicily. A Room with a View (1986) captures the charm of the book of the same name (described earlier). Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) — filled with eye-candy views — falls flat in comparison. The Oscar-winning Holocaust tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful (1997) has sections set in a Tuscan town. The warm-hearted Italian epic Best of Youth (2003) takes place in several Italian locations, including Florence and rural Tuscany.
For an excellent PBS docudrama about Florence’s first family, look for Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2005).
If Siena is on your itinerary, try Palio (1932), Stealing Beauty (1996), and Up at the Villa (2000), which also has scenes set in Florence. The English Patient (1996) was partially shot in and near Montepulciano, as was the vampire romance, New Moon (2009, part of the Twilight series). Filmed in Lucca, The Triumph of Love (2001) has a Baroque feel, while The Portrait of a Lady (1996) stays true to Henry James’ bleak novel.
If bound for San Gimignano, consider watching films set in that locale: Prince of Foxes (1949), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), and two of Franco Zeffirelli’s films, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) and Tea with Mussolini (1999).
Although it’s not a film, the video game Assassin’s Creed II takes place in Renaissance Florence, San Gimignano, and other real Tuscan locations. The action is violent (hence the title), but you spend the game exploring astonishingly detailed, fully interactive 3-D models of the towns at their Renaissance peak. Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and other real-life Florentines are characters in the game, and when you approach a famous landmark, historical information about the place pops up on the screen.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook.